Monday, 23 November 2015

Brussels in 'lockdown'

Brussels is a lot tougher than people unfamiliar with the city might think.

I was in Brussels during the intense events of the last few days, and I would be lying if I said I didn't feel quite a bit of relief to be back in Berlin today. 

At the same time, I'd have to say that the situation in Brussels wasn't quite as terrifying as the international media has made it out to be. And Brusselers are far more used to this kind of thing than one might assume.

The reports have been full of the same tired clich├ęs that I often here about Brussels - that it's a quiet town "usually associated with the somnolent activity of the European Union", as the New York Times put it. In truth, the roar of helicopters, the whir of constant sirens and the sight of military personnel on the streets of Brussels is not an unusual sight. The city is, don't forget, the home of both the EU and NATO and therefor requires intense security for visiting leaders.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Longer waits to get back home for EU citizens

EU interior ministers in Brussels agreed today to put in place the same screening procedures for their own citizens as for foreign citizens at the EU's external borders.

As someone with both US and EU nationality, I've been amazed at the very different experience I encounter when entering each one.

When I go home to New York, I always have to wait in a very long line at JFK airport, even though I am entering with my US passport. I have to fill out a customs declaration form, then bring it to a border guard (after a wait of usually around 40 minutes). He runs it through the database, and asks me a serious of questions. Where have I been? Why do I live in Belgium? What is my job? Where am I staying? The whole interview process can take between three to ten minutes.

Contrast this to my experience coming home to the Schengen area using my Italian passport. I've never once been asked any question at the border. Usually, they just glance at my passport and wave me through. Sometimes they quickly run my passport through a scanner. Given how quick the process is I doubt it's running my name through an extensive database.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Why is Brussels a terror nexus?

The combination of balkanised authorities and a marginalised North African population has made Brussels a natural terrorism hub. 

I’m here in Brussels this week, doing a few TV spots and moderating some conferences. As soon as I arrived at the airport last night, I could sense the tension in the city as a result of this weekend's terrorist attack in Paris. 

As I rode the nearly empty tram to my Brussels apartment, a group of young North African men got on the tram, engaged in a heated argument amongst themselves about the recent attacks (they were debating whether or not it was justified). I stopped into my local kebab joint and found another discussion between the Moroccan owners and a white Belgian customer, about how the authorities should respond. Outside, sirens wailed as police searched the city for one of the attackers believed to be on the loose in the city.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Martin Luther and German nationalism

The father of the protestant reformation has been used as a propaganda tool by many governments over the years, but today he attracts considerably less attention.

Today I took a day trip to Wittenberg, where the protestant reformation began in 1517 after the theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door. That act of rebellion kicked off a Europe-wide revolt against the corruption in the Catholic church that would eventually lead to the wars of religion in the 16th century, killing thousands upon thousands of people. During all this time, Wittenberg became the center of reformation effort, known as the "Protestant Rome".

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Germany's privacy preoccupation

Can Germans convince other Europeans to feel as strongly about data privacy as they do? A new documentary tries to make the case.

Last night I attended the Berlin premier of Democracy, a documentary about the European Union's proposed data privacy regulation. The director, David Bernet, has been following the main actors involved in the legislation since it was first proposed in January 2012.

The film strives to be a call-to-arms for Europe as a whole, drawing attention to the threat posed by data surveillance and the current make-or-break moment for this legislation which would put controls on snooping. It opens and closes with shots of the Parthenon in Athens, with an ominous-looking government helicopter flying overhead. The not-so-subtle message: all democracy is under threat from unrestrained data surveillance.

But despite the pan-European scenes, the film seems to be coming from a very German perspective on these issues. And as somewhat of a privacy-sceptic, I came away feeling that while film told me what is happening with the legislation, it didn't tell me why I should support it.

Friday, 6 November 2015

English in Berlin? Not as widespread as you might think

A new study finds Slovenes, Estonians and Poles all have greater English proficiency than Germans. 

One of the biggest adjustments for me moving from Brussels to Berlin has been linguistic. For one thing, I moved from a city where I speak the language (French) to one where I don't (German). 

But I'll admit it - even though I speak French I preferred to do most things in my native language when possible. In Brussels, this was most of the time. I only spoke French when I absolutely had to, either for work (a lot of French lawmakers don't speak English or are not allowed to), for dealing with Belgian administration, or socially if I was with a group of all Francophones (that didn't happen very often).